two abstract figured looking at each other

I'm Nobody! Who Are You?

by Emily Dickinson
Start Free Trial

What does Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" have in common with Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"?

The relationship between the two poems is that they are opposites between terms. Emily Dickinson was a very private poet who wrote in a very unique style. Walt Whitman was a public poet who wrote in a very casual, almost conversational style. These differences are reflected in the poems' tones and themes as well: Emily Dickinson's poem is about staying away from fame and public life, while Walt Whitman's poem is about connecting with everything around him; there is no preference for one thing over another.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are widely regarded two most important American poets of the nineteenth century and are frequently compared, due to both their equal mastery of verse and their contrasting styles. Dickinson used very spare but precise language, while Whitman often used lists of nouns to encompass the breadth of the American and human experience. Dickinson's verse takes up very little space on a page, whereas Whitman's nearly runs off of the page, which gives some indication of each poet's style.

"I am Nobody, who are you?" is cleverly "self-effacing." Dickinson exclaims her anonymity and capitalizes "nobody," just as she capitalizes "somebody." We could chalk this up to her writing convention, which did not follow general rules of capitalization—or we could use this to suggest that she intended to express the sense that anonymity is just as valid as choosing a life of fame. Dickinson, we now know, was very private and hardly left her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts (except to travel, once, to Boston). Her poems were discovered posthumously and published. She associates a public life with turning into a "frog"—something ugly and slimy. To extend that association, she compares the public to which the frog tells its name to a "bog." A bog is weighed down with detritus, while Dickinson (or her narrator) prefers an existence that is light and unencumbered—like that of someone who is hardly known. However, in her advocacy of anonymity, Dickinson is not eschewing her existence altogether—"I am Nobody" is still a declaration of a form of existence. Also, she has a companion with whom she shares her preference for modesty.

Whitman's "Song of Myself" advocates connection with every aspect of life, demonstrating how people connect at an atomic level. Whitman's first line—"I celebrate myself, and sing myself"—is an affirmation of selfhood that seems to contrast strongly with "I am Nobody, who are you?" However, the narrators of both poems seek identification with another; both narrators refer to an unidentified "you."

Both poems also advocate introspection. For Dickinson's narrator, self-awareness comes through rejecting public attention. Friendship is important, not fame. For Whitman's narrator, it is important to take a break from daily labors to "loafe" [sic] and "invite [one's] soul" or to "lean and loafe [sic] at [one's] ease"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It's difficult to think of any two poems that could be further apart than the self-effacing "I'm Nobody" and the celebration of self in "Song of Myself." One is brief, the other lengthy. The voice of one is quiet while the other is jubilant. Nevertheless, there are some similarities. 

Both poets lived in nineteenth century America. Whitman was born before Dickinson and he lived far longer than she did. Both poets became known as the best of nineteenth century poetry in the US. Both were self-educated, reading widely and both were influenced by the Bible. 

The main thing that is in common in terms of the poems themselves, is the sense of self-acceptance. Both poets value their own lives and express satisfaction with their lives in their poetry. "I'm Nobody" asks readers if they are also "nobodies" and then lets the reader know that being "Somebody" would be "dreary." The poem is a conspiracy between two quiet people to stay under the radar of fame and enjoy a peaceful life. 

Whitman also invites the reader into his mind, sharing his thoughts about various and sundry, all in the celebration of himself as a significant entity in this world. 

If Whitman represents the brashness of Americans living in an open and free land, Dickinson represents the pensive underside of Americans, the side that allows everyday, ordinary people to appreciate their own lives. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team